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Highly processed foods


Today, the vast majority of foods are processed before they are put on the market or consumed.

Some food processing methods are essential to preservation and may even have a positive impact on the nutritional quality of food. The addition of vitamin D to milk, for example, is beneficial.

Other food processing methods can, however, have a negative impact on health because they increase the amount of fat, sugar and sodium in food. These methods create highly processed foods with a lower nutritional value and are less benefical for health.

Highly processed foods:

  • are high in energy (calories);
  • are high in added sugar, sodium and saturated and trans fat;
  • contain food additives that are used, for instance, as colouring agents, thickeners, emulsifiers or preservatives. These added substances alter the characteristics of the food and lower its nutritional value.

The amount of processed foods consumed in Québec has increased significantly in recent years. The faster pace of life means that some people have less time to cook and buy prepared, often highly processed, foods.

Often targeted by food marketing, highly processed foods and drinks are attractive solutions for the consumer. Marketing can have a strong influence on your choices at the grocery store.

Frequent consumption of highly processed products can reduce the quality of your diet. A less healthy diet can increase the risk of developing chronic diseases, such as diabetes, some forms of cancer, cardiovascular disease and hypertension.

Lowering your consumption of highly processed foods that are high in sodium, sugar or saturated fat can reduce the harmful effects of these foods on your body and prevent diseases.

Helpful websites about highly processed foods


Sodium is a mineral that is naturally present in food. Found in table salt, sodium is often added to food for taste, to extend its shelf life or to change its texture.

The body needs sodium to function. However, a diet that is too high in sodium can lead to high blood pressure, increasing the risk of stroke, heart disease and kidney disease.

To lower your sodium intake, follow these tips:

  • Eat fewer prepared or ready-to-eat foods, the source of 75% of sodium in the diet. They include, for example:
    • foods sold at fast food restaurants;
    • prepared dishes;
    • processed meats, such as deli meats;
    • canned soups and stock;
    • tomato or vegetable juices;
    • condiments, such as ketchup and marinades;
    • salty snacks, such as chips.
  • Read the nutrition facts table on food labels to make smart choices. Choose products that have a daily value (DV) of no more than 15% per serving for sodium and, preferably, those with a DV of less than 5%.
  • Reduce the amount of salt you add to your meals. In some recipes, reducing the amount of salt by 5 to 10% will go unnoticed. For example, if your recipe calls for 5 mL (1 teaspoon) of salt, you can reduce the amount by 1 to 2 mL without affecting the taste of the dish.
  • Replace some of the salt in your meals with herbs. The taste will be just as pronounced, but different.
  • Season your food with salt-free spices, lemon juice or garlic instead of salt. You will discover different flavours and gradually get used to the taste of less-salty food. Beware of sea salt, celery salt, garlic salt and onion salt, all of which contain sodium. Their consumption should be limited in the same way as table salt.

Helpful websites about sodium


Sugar is naturally present in many nutritious foods such as milk, fruits and vegetables. Sugar may also be added to foods to improve their flavour, colour and texture or to extend their shelf life.

Sugar comes in many forms, including:

  • white sugar;
  • brown sugar;
  • maple syrup;
  • molasses;
  • honey;
  • corn syrup;
  • ingredients that end in “ose” (e.g., glucose, fructose, dextrose, maltose).

By 2022, all food labels in Canada will list sugars in brackets after “Sugars”. To find out more, go to the page Food labelling changes This hyperlink will open in a new window. on the Government of Canada website.

The main foods that sugar is added to are:

  • sugary drinks;
  • cakes;
  • cookies;
  • chocolate;
  • candy;
  • granola bars;
  • some flavoured yogurts;
  • other highly processed products.

Added sugar provides calories and has no nutritional benefit. Sugar is also linked to the development of many health problems such as tooth decay and diabetes. Limit your daily sugar intake as much as possible. To reduce the amount of sugar in your diet, follow these tips:

  • Avoid sugary drinks, such as soft drinks, fruit drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks, iced tea and coffee, sweetened water or 100% pure fruit juice.
  • Choose milk or enriched plant-based drinks such as unsweetened enriched soy drinks. Avoid sweetened milk, for example chocolate or vanilla milk, for it contains added sugar.
  • Choose fresh fruit rather than canned fruit, which contains sugar. If you eat canned fruit, choose fruit in water rather than syrup.
  • Choose unsweetened wholegrain cereals and do not add sugar.
  • Make homemade muffins, cookies and other desserts more often and use low-sugar recipes, for example, recipes with a small amount of brown sugar, honey, molasses or syrup.
  • Choose plain yogurt and add your favourite fresh fruit, pureed fruit or canned fruit. You can also mix equal parts of plain yogurt and flavoured yogurt.
  • Read the list of ingredients on food labels to make smart choices. Limit your consumption of products that have sugar or an equivalent, such as glucose, fructose, dextrose, maltose or sucrose, listed as the first ingredient.
  • Do not add sugar to your coffee or tea.

Helpful websites about sugar


Fats are found in foods and there are three different types: unsaturated fats, saturated fats and trans fats. Unsaturated fats are good for your health, whereas saturated and trans fats should be avoided.

Unsaturated fats are an essential part of a healthy diet. They provide energy and help the body grow, develop and absorb certain vitamins. Choosing foods that contain unsaturated fats can help lower your risk of cardiovascular disease.

Here are some examples of foods that contain unsaturated fats:

  • fatty fish (trout, salmon, herring, etc.);
  • avocados;
  • nuts (cashew nuts, almonds, walnuts, etc.);
  • seeds (flaxseed, chia seeds, sunflower seeds, etc.);
  • vegetable oils (olive oil, flaxseed oil, canola oil, etc.);
  • soft margarine.

To reduce the amount of saturated and trans fats in your diet, follow these tips:

  • Cook at home more often and use healthy fats in your recipes (canola oil, olive oil, soft margarine).
  • Avoid foods that contain saturated fats (lard, butter, palm oil, hard margarine, coconut oil).
  • Choose lower-fat dairy products.
  • Choose lean meats and skinless poultry. Remove as much fat as possible. Drain the fat from ground meat.
  • Read the nutrition facts table on food labels to make smart choices. Choose products that have a daily value (DV) of no more than 15% per serving for saturated fat and, preferably, those with a DV of less than 5%.

The main source of industrially produced trans fats in foods came from partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs). PHOs were added, for example, to hard margarines or baked goods to improve their texture and shelf life. Today, it is illegal for food manufacturers to add PHOs to foods sold in Canada.

Helpful websites about fat

Last update: October 10, 2019


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